Editor's Note: This article contains imagery that some readers may find offensive.
News about Dr. Seuss today has people discussing history, racism, children's literature, "cancel culture," and what to do with problematic and harmful work from a beloved author.
After years of growing awareness of racist imagery in some of Dr. Seuss's early work, the estate of the children's author has announced that six of his titles will no longer be published or licensed.
"These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong," Dr. Seuss Enterprises wrote, adding "Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises' catalog represents and supports all communities and families."
Naturally, people have feelings about this.
Dr. Seuss books are a beloved part of millions of Americans' childhoods. Many of us learned to read with Dr. Seuss books and have fond memories of the rhyme and rhythms inherent in his silly stories. But that doesn't mean that all of his works were benign.
Theodor Seuss Geisel, who wrote his kids' books under the pseudonym "Dr. Seuss," got his start as a political cartoonist. While his anti-Nazi cartoons are largely still palatable, his racist depictions of Japanese Americans during the war are not. Racial stereotypes such as Geisel depicted led to 120,000 Japanese Americans being cruelly placed in internment camps in the U.S. between 1942 and 1945. Geisel also drew horrible caricatures of people from Africa and the Middle East.
Geisel's views evolved, and he expressed regret over some of his depictions. His book "Horton Hears a Who" was meant to be an indirect apology to the Japanese, and "The Sneetches" can be read as a moral story showing the pitfalls of prejudice. Debate over whether or not his racist work can be reconciled with his later anti-prejudice work has raged for years. Some try to defend his early work, saying he was a product of his time—but that ignores the fact that anti-racist people have existed alongside racists for all of history. Some say that his change of heart is enough to forgive his past, but others point out that he never formally apologized for his racist works nor did he do anything to change his portrayal of people of color.
Which brings us to the Dr. Seuss Enterprises announcement that they will stop publishing six of his children's books.
Whether or not Geisel redeemed himself in his personal views later in life, his hurtful portrayals of people of color are still out there. In fact, a study on the racial implications in 50 of his children's books titled "The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss's Children's Books" found the following:
"In the fifty Dr. Seuss children's books, 2,240 human characters are identified. Of the 2,240 characters, there are forty-five characters of color representing two percent of the total number of human characters. The eight books featuring characters of color include: The Cat's Quizzer: Are YOU Smarter Than the Cat in the Hat?; Scrambled Eggs Super!; Oh, the Places You'll Go!; On Beyond Zebra; Because a Little Bug Went Ka-choo; If I Ran the Zoo; And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street; and Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?
"Of the forty-five characters of color, forty-three are identified as having characteristics aligning with the definition of Orientalism. Within the Orientalist definition, fourteen people are identified by stereotypical East Asian characteristics and twenty-nine characters are wearing turbans. Characters aligned with Orientalism are sometimes attributed an ethno-racial identity, but are generally situated within a colorblind lens, often from an unspecified nationality, race, or ethnicity. Only two of the forty-five characters are identified in the text as "African" and both align with the theme of anti-Blackness.
"White supremacy is seen through the centering of Whiteness and White characters, who comprise 98% (2,195 characters) of all characters. Notably, every character of color is male. Males of color are only presented in subservient, exotified, or dehumanized roles. This also remains true in their relation to White characters. Most startling is the complete invisibility and absence of women and girls of color across Seuss' entire children's book collection."
The following tweet contains two examples of racist imagery found in "If I Ran the Zoo":
https://t.co/HT34WAwh7v https://t.co/vWYn6COCOs— ✡️🌈👩🌾- Webdev / Author - old white woman (@✡️🌈👩🌾- Webdev / Author - old white woman) 1614704123.0
While there has been a predictable uproar about "canceling" or "banning" Dr. Seuss, this move to remove the problematic books came from the Dr. Seuss estate itself, not some amorphous "cancel culture" mob. It's only six books out of 50 that will no longer be published so they don't keep putting out hurtful images. Some parents and educators have decided there are other authors they prefer to use to help kids learn to read due to Geisel's history—but that's not the same as banning his books. Some libraries and school districts have stopped highlighting Dr. Seuss books, but they are still available on the shelves.
President Biden not mentioning Dr. Seuss during his Read Across America Day proclamation today is also not really "canceling." The day has been around since 1998, and though it coincides with Geisel's birthday, neither Bill Clinton nor George W. Bush mentioned Dr. Seuss in their proclamations, either. Presidents Obama and Trump did—both of them singing Dr. Seuss's praises—but the day is not synonymous with Dr. Seuss.
Do we really want to call thoughtful criticism, personal discernment in book choices, and making changes when harmful things come to light "cancel culture"? Meh. What we're seeing here is learning. It's growth. It's reckoning with the complexities of reality and wrestling with demons of the past. Uprooting racism is messy, but pretending it doesn't exist, even in the works of beloved icons, will get us nowhere.
We'll likely be debating Dr. Seuss's legacy for many years to come, but it's good to see his estate taking action to stop continuing to put out imagery that perpetuates stereotypes.
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